Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alice Munro’s “To Reach Japan” and the Winter 2012 issue of Narrative

Alice Munro’s most recent story, “To Reach Japan,” has been published on the online journal Narrative. I have been receiving online stories from Narrative for a few years now. But I must confess that I do not always read the stories online. Although I have been using computers to research, organize, and write since the early days of CPM and Apple II (My first computer was a Kaypro a with a nine inch green screen and two floppy disc drives), I still cannot fully engage in reading stories on a computer screen or an Ipad/Kindle type tablet. Something about books, I reckon, that has been with me since I first picked up a copy of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I have had an e-reader for almost a year now, but have only read one book on it—a biography of J.D. Salinger.

I think e-readers are fine for “disposable books,” i.e. pop fictions, mainly novels, of course, that you read once for entertainment and then give away to a second-hand store; I also think they are great for textbooks and applaud Apple’s recent arrangement with text publishers to make inexpensive texts available for its Ipad;. The outrageous price publishers charge for texts and the absurd frequency with which they release “new editions” is scandalous; and forcing students to lug huge tomes around in backpacks because they have no lockers is unforgivable.

However, for my purposes--reading and studying short stories--I will cling to the solid feel of a book in my hand and carefully reading black ink on white paper. Thus, I was very happy recently to purchase and hold in my hand the handsome Winter 2012 issue of Narrative magazine—hefty but not overweight, with a slick firm cover and 360 pages filled with some twenty stories, a passel of poems, and a half dozen essays. I know the magazine is made up of PDF printouts of the stories, poems, and essays that have appeared on Narrative’s web site because I ordered a PDF version of Alice Munro’s story “To Reach Japan” ($4.00) when it first came out a few months ago; the pdf printout looks like a photocopy of the story as it appears in the magazine.

The very fact that the first thing I did when I downloaded the Alice Munro story was to make a hard copy, of course, says something about my addiction to pages and print. That I still went ahead and ordered the Winter issue of Narrative ($19.95) that contained the story, of course, testifies I am hopeless in my commitment to books.

I am not sure why Munro published “To Reach Japan” in the online magazine, Narrative. I know she has a first-refusal contract with The New Yorker, which means, I think, that she is required to send a story to them first and give them a chance to refuse it before she can send it to anyone else. Did The New Yorker (gasp!) turn down a story from Alice Munro? Or did they demur because they already had in hand another Munro story, “Leaving Maverley,” which appeared in the magazine at the end of November? Or was the story too long for them? I know that her quite long story “Too Much Happiness” appeared a few years ago in Harper’s. I also know that Narrative, like New Yorker and Harper’s (unlike most periodicals that publish short stories pay real money for stories they publish, and I certainly would not expect Alice Munro to give her stories away. After all, she is a professional writer, not an amateur. I thank my reader Jay for alerting me that another new Munro story is appearing in Granta in the issue that comes out next week. I have ordered the new issue and look forward to reading it. With the story that Bob Thacker has told me that Harpers has in hand, that makes a total of eight new stories for the new Munro book due out later this year.

. I have only a couple of complaints about the format of the new Narrative volume: Although it contains a story by a great short story writer, the cover of the issue is dominated by a huge close-up photo of Sherman Alexie in an open-mouthed laugh; his name and the title of his poem “In’din Curse” is in 48 point type. The picture of Alice Munro on the cover is about the size of a large postage stamp. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know; the picture of Alexie having a great laugh is more eye-catching than a picture of an octogenarian with white hair. But damn! Alexie’s little I-poem “In’din Curse” that hopes your bladder containing gallons will be crushed under the feet of a half-white dancer is just so trivial and juvenile! And another thing: Perhaps it is my age and eyesight, but the typeface of the stories in Narrative is pale and hard to read; moreover, the volume does not identify the title of each story on the page headings, something I also find annoying.

But never mind; it is the content of the “magazine” that counts most, of course. I didn’t like everything, but there was enough here to keep me engaged for several nights. I will make just a few brief comments about the pieces I liked best before talking in more detail about Alice Munro’s “To Read Japan.”

Amy Bloom’s “A Portion of Your Loveliness” is a clever, witty story by a writer who always makes me laugh and groan at the same time. This is a story about a woman whose young daughter’s favorite game is “Holocaust,” in which the little girl pretends she is an Anne Frank-like refugee hiding from, or captured by, the Nazis. It’s a humorous concept that Bloom takes very seriously; or else a serious concept that Bloom takes very humorously.

“Sitting In” by Will Boast, is an appealing story about a young boy who challenges an older man to play tuba in a small polka band. The older man is “possibly a Jew, exiled by the Holocaust,” and absolutely needs his role in the band to survive emotionally. It is an initiation for the boy into the adult world of loneliness and despair. I liked it.

Liz Moore’s “Our Neighbors the Bells” is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl who lives with her twenty-five-year-old mother and twin sister. The story is told in the present tense, but the narration is not that of an eight-year-old, although its short sentences and repetition might suggest a child’s voice. The son of the family across the street, Benny Bell, tells the mother he is in love with her, but her relationship with the family is an ambiguous one. An engaging story, it seems to me, about a child’s puzzled reaction to the mystery of adult reality.

I also like Mary Morris’s “Birds of Africa,” about a boy who breaks into homes of his neighbors to take a short nap on their beds and steal some inconsequential item. One of the items he takes is a book entitled Birds of Africa, with which he becomes fascinated.

Rick Bass’s essay about the trial and tribulations of taking out the carcass of an elk he has killed is typical Rick Bass, which, in my opinion, is always pretty damned good; and Jayne Anne Phillips’ review essay on E. L. Doctorow’s collection of new and selected stories, All the Time in the World is, as usual for Phillips (one of my favorite writers), smart and perceptive.

This is a handsome collection, well worth the $19.95 price tag.

I have written so often about Alice Munro on this blog that I don’t want to spend a great deal of time here on her story “To Reach Japan.” This story seems more like one of Munro’s earlier stories, not only because it focuses on a young woman (for Munro has of late been writing about women near her own age), but also because it follows a relatively linear plot line and does not seem to have the complex thematic structure that Munro’s later stories do.

The story focuses on a woman named Greta who is taking the train to Toronto with her young daughter Katy to housesit for a friend while her husband Peter works on a job in northern Canada. Peter and Greta differ in significant ways: He studied business while she was learning Paradise Lost. She avoids anything useful, while he does the opposite. While she has strong opinions about things, his opinions are even tempered. When he sees a movie or reads a book, for example, he never wants to talk about it and does not judge, saying that the people who put them together were probably doing as well as they could. Greta is more analytical and critical; she is a poet, who has had a few poems published.

In a bit of social background commentary, the omniscient narrator states that it is hard to explain the life of woman at the time the story takes place—a time when feminism did not exist. Any serious idea or ambition by a woman was seen “as some sort of crime against nature. Even reading a real book was behavior that was suspect, leading possibly to a child’s pneumonia, and making a political remark at a party might be said to be the cause of your husband’s failure to get a promotion.”

The background incident of the story occurs when Greta is invited to a party by the editor of the magazine where her poems were published. When she arrives, she knows no one there, is generally ignored, and becomes slightly drunk. She is rescued by a journalist named Harris Bennett, the son-in-law of the people who have given the part; he offers to take her home. He has adolescent children; his wife is in a hospital for “emotional problems.” On the way home, he says he was thinking of whether or not he would kiss Greta and decided he would not—which mortifies her at the time.

Greta cannot get Bennett out of her mind, thinks about him every day, nearly weeps with a “dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness,” although she chastises herself as an idiot for her romanticism. The offer to housesit in Toronto, where Harris lives, provides an opportunity to see him; so she finds his work address and writes the following note: “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle—and hoping it will reach Japan.”

On the train trip to Toronto, Greta meets a couple of young actors named Greg and Laurie, who work with preschoolers. They are both beautiful and charming, playing with Katy and other children on the train. It is at this point that we get another personal insight into Greta and some more social background commentary about the time of the story. When Greta says that Greg is “remarkable,” Laurie says,”He doesn’t save himself up. You know? A lot of actors do. Actors in particular. Dead offstage.” Greta thinks that this is what she does--save herself up. “Careful with Katy, careful with Peter.” The narrator says that in the decade they had now entered—which seems probably to be the sixties—“Being there was to mean something it didn’t used to mean. Going with the flow. Give. People were giving, other people were not very giving. Barriers between the inside and outside of yourself were to be trampled down. Authenticity required it.”

When Laurie gets off the train (She had Greg have decided to separate), Greta and Greg have a drink together and end up having sex in his berth. When Greta returns to her own cabin, her daughter is not there; and she “went stupid” with the shock of it. However, after some panic, she pushes the door between the cars open and finds Katy sitting there. She tries to justify all this by saying that surely someone would have found Katy, but she is obviously shaken and feeling terribly guilty about the whole thing. After Greg leaves the train at the next stop, she scolds herself for allowing other things to crowd Katy out—the “idiotic preoccupation” with the man in Toronto, her fantasies of writing poetry—all this now seemed “traitorous” to Katy and her husband—“A sin. The inattention. Coldhearted foraging attention to something else than the child. A sin.”

However, when they get off the train at the Toronto station, a man walks up and takes hold of Greta and kisses her “in a determined and celebratory way.” It is, of course, Harris Bennett.

The story ends this way:

“First a shock, then a tumbling in Greta’s insides, an immense settling.

She was trying to hang on to Katy but at that moment the child pulled away, she got her hand free.

She didn’t try to escape, she just stood. Downcast, waiting for whatever had to come next.”

I wonder if this is a story Munro wrote several years ago and never got published—either because The New Yorker turned it down or because she was not satisfied with it. It has several familiar Munro features in it: a woman who wants to be a writer married to a man who is practical and business minded; a woman who has mixed feelings about the counterculture of the sixties—averse to it by her culture, but drawn to it by romantic notions stimulated by literature; a woman who often neglects her domestic and motherly duties with her romantic fantasies, but then feels guilty about this. A woman who commits the “sin” of inattention to her child while indulging in her own romantic fantasies. Munro has written about these things before, and anyone who has read Robert Thacker’s biography of Munro will surely recognize some of these characteristics of Munro herself when she was a young wife and experienced conflicts between her domestic duties and her ambition to write.

Engaging in romantic impulsive behavior perhaps because of the influence of literature is a common Munro theme, as is the influence of actors or acting on one’s view of the world. The cultural/social background of the emerging of the sexually permissive sixties is also a common Munro theme, especially in her early stores, as is the influence of emerging feminism on female behavior.

However, this story does not seem to me to be as complex either thematically or structurally as Munro’s later stories, which also makes me suspect that it is an early story that she has perhaps “rescued” to fill out her new book. I will check with Bob Thacker, who is the expert on all things relative to Munro’s

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Popular Plotted vs. Literary Thematic Stories: Margaret Atwood vs. Alice Munro—Part II

I appreciate the many kind comments I received on my post about Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress,” even those, of course, that did not agree with me. And I am pleased that they have been looking forward to this discussion of Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley.”

However, first I want to clarify my conviction that short stories often have to be read more than once. When I posted an essay on this issue on the very fine blog “Thresholds,” I received a mild roasting from Mike Smith, a regular to that blog. In my own post, I argued that short stories could not be skimmed, read quickly, or summarized. Mike begged to disagree, concluding, after a discussion of one of his own favorite writers, Stephen King, that if short stories were not immediately accessible at some level, they fail in their primary function, which is to “entertain” in what Poe described as one or two hours.

Although I do not think that the primary function of a short story is to “entertain,” that is, unless the word “entertain” is understood as something more complex than a Steven King shiver, but rather that the primary function of a short story is to provide a stimulating experience with what it mysteriously means to be a thinking, feeling human being in the world. However, the primary reason I think that short stories must be read more than once does not have to do with the opaqueness of their language, but rather with the way that many stories structure that stimulating human experience. I argued in the blog on “Stone Mattress” that Atwood’s story was a relatively simple plot-based surface level “entertainment” that revealed little about complex human reality.

Readersquest, one of my favorite readers of this blog because she likes playing the gadfly and because her own blog posts are interesting, earnest, and stimulating (but more about that a bit later) commented: “I guess at heart I'm still just a child who gets a huge dopamine rush, upon opening a book or a magazine, because I think the author is going to tell me a story. I may be a junkie for unliterary crack. I don't pretend to know what constitutes "social substance" or "artistic importance" in a short story--and I'm not sure that I'd want to read anything by a writer who was so self-important that they'd try to tell me something socially substantive or artistically important anyway!”

Although I have no patience with writers who try to pile “socially substantive” stuff on me, I have no objection to writers who dare to offer me something “artistically important,” that is, of course, unless their sense of “self-importance” is misplaced, like that of Julian Barnes, whose Man Booker prize-winner The Sense of an Ending is pretentious and light-weight (but more about that in a week or so). I don’t think Alice Munro presents herself as “self important,” the way Barnes did in his acceptance speech at the Man Booker Awards; however, I think she would be a lesser writer if she did not believe that what she writes is important. In my opinion, Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” has more “artistic importance” than Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” because it explores something complex about how human beings think and behave in the world and because it carefully structures that complexity in the only way stories can—with language. Readersquest says in her comment: “I look forward to reading Part II of this post, because I really don't enjoy the kind of stories that offer me only artifacts of "language-based thematic.” I hope she finds the following discussion an interesting description of the process by which I read “Leaving Maverley”:

As I began to read Alice Munro’s story “Leaving Maverley” for the fourth time, I was reminded how complex a process reading a story is when you have already read it once and know what “happens” in it as an account of events involving characters in the world.

If you already know what happens, why would you want to read it again? What do you “attend to” when you read it a second or third or fourth time? Well, for one thing, when you read a story the first time, you probably focus so much on “seeing” what happens that you might fail to focus on “hearing” the words of the story. In the opening paragraph of “Leaving Maverley,” you visualize the movie theatre and the owner Morgan Holly, but perhaps are not aware of the rhythm of the sentences. Take the opening sentence: “In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town there was one in this town too, in Maverley, and it was called the Capital, as such theatres often were.” There are many ways this information could have been communicated, e.g. “Every town used to have a movie theatre; Maverley had one with the common name the Capital.” However, something is lost with this revision, even though it seems to follow Strunk and White’s famous advice in Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”

Munro’s sentence has a “once upon a time” (which, as Bruno Bettelheim has suggested, might better be translated as “one there was; once there will be”) familiarity to it that alerts us to a story about something in the past that may indeed have timeless significance. The phrase “this town” suggests the teller has some first-hand knowledge and is perhaps telling of the events as an effort to understand and articulate their significance. The ending phrase, “as such theatres often were,” suggests some broader contextual historical knowledge also. This rhythm is continued in subsequent paragraphs with short storytelling sentences such as “So the girl came. Her name was Leah” and “There was one problem.”

Although it could not have occurred to us on the first reading, a second reading may lead us to ask why Munro opens the story with the movie theater and its owner, since neither play a significant role in the remainder of the story. This seems to ignore Poe’s injunction: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” It also seems to ignore Chekhov’s advice: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

However, neither Poe nor Chekhov meant to suggest that every detail in the story must contribute to the “plot” or events of the story, for neither believed that plot was the most important element in a story; both were more concerned with thematic “design” or pattern. If we assume that “Leaving Maverley” is built around a spatial thematic pattern rather than a temporal action plot, then we might suspect that the theatre and its owner are related to significance rather than to events. Furthermore, since we have read the story through once and know that it has something to do with the “secret lives” of its characters, with the mysterious way that unions are created and promises broken, we might suspect that the following introductory details of the story have thematic significance:

*The owner of the theatre, Morgan Holly, does not like dealing with the public;

*Holly prefers to manage the story on the screen.

*The ticket-taker who gets pregnant must quit because “in those days you were supposed to get out of the public eye before you began to show”;

*Morgan Holly “disliked change and the idea of people having private lives.”

*The new girl’s name is Leah; we know Munro’s choice of name is not incidental because Holly asks her about it, and she tells him it is out of the Bible, and because the story ends with a reference to the name. (In Genesis 29, Jacob works for seven years for his chosen Rachel; but Rachel’s father gives him her older sister Leah instead, and he must work another seven years for the woman he wants).

*Leah is forbidden by her father either to look at the movie screen or to listen to the dialogue. Holly agrees, but deceives the father by telling him the theatre is soundproof;

These themes about staying away from the public, dealing with depicted stories rather than “real” people, disliking private lives, being isolated from what is going on, etc. are echoed later when the night policeman Ray Elliot and his wife Isabel are introduced. They have been isolated from the town by the scandal of her leaving her husband for Ray; he brings her news from the town and she, a teacher of English Language and Literature, tells him what she is reading.

The theme of “story” or telling about events rather than experiencing them or being involved in them is related to the theme of “acting” or “fictional reality” brought up when on their walks home, having little to talk about, Leah asks Ray, who sits in on the movies, what the audience had been laughing about. He tells her that he does not get involved in the movies, seeing them only in bits and pieces, so he seldom follows the plots. When Leah asks him what he means by “plots,” he tells her the movies tell “stories.” He does not tell her any specific story, but generically generalizes what the stories are about: “crooks and innocent people and that the crooks generally managed well enough at first by committing their crimes and hoodwinking people singing in night clubs or sometimes, God knows why, singing on mountaintops or in some other unlikely outdoor scenery, holding up the action.” Ray tells Leah that in the movies there are dressed-up actors with glycerin tears, jungle animals brought in from zoos, “people getting up from being murdered in various way the moment the camera was off them”—in other words, that the movies do not deal with reality but rather a similitude of reality, with pretending.

The next section of the story focuses on an event in which Leah is actually involved—running away with the minister’s son--but the event seems distant and unreal to the reader, like the movies played out of sight, because it is known to us only through Ray, who did not even know Leah was working for the minister and his wife. He is surprised that Leah had not mentioned it—“Even though, compared with the theatre, it hardly seemed like much of a foray into the world.” This is ironic, since Leah’s work at the theatre is hardly an encounter with the world, but rather an encounter with a pretend world and even that at a distance. Later Ray’s wife Isabel teases him, “wondering if it was on account of his descriptions of the wide world via the movies that the girl had got the idea.” Thus, the theme of acting as if one were in a story, being motivated to do things because that is how people in movies might do them, is suggested.

The next section of “Leaving Maverley” takes place a few years later when, after Isabel’s illness has necessitated hiring a nurse, Ray runs into Leah on the street with a two-year-old baby boy and a little girl. Although their conversation seems inconsequential, “there was a feeling that she didn’t quite want to part with Ray yet, and Ray did not want it, either, but it was hard to think of anything else to say.” Indeed, there is some tacit or immanent connection between Ray and Leah, it is not something that can be articulated, for, as is often the case, one cannot be sure if it is “real” or not.

When Isabel gets worse, Ray takes her to a hospital in the city. When she fails to wake up one morning and must be transferred to a section of the hospital for people who have no chance of improving but refuse to die, Ray goes back to Maverley and sells his house and leaves: “All those years in the town, all he knew about it, seemed to just slip away from him.” Thus, the title of the story. Although Ray leaves Maverley because Isabel has already left it, one could hardly say that they have any real connection to the town.

There is yet one more “story” or scandal about Leah that leads to her “leaving” Maverley. The United Church Minister wants his wife to divorce him on the grounds of adultery with Leah. The Minister tells his congregation that he did not believe all his own mouthings of the Gospels, that all his preachings about love and sex had been timid and conventional—a sham—and that he was now, thanks to Leah, a free man. Once again, we have the theme of the relationship between pretend behavior and actual behavior. One might say, without cynicism, that the two primary places in a town like Maverley in which “fictions” are presented are movie theatres and churches, even if many believe that the fiction presented in churches is a “higher fiction.” My favorite passage from the Bible is from Hebrews: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.”

Ray gets work and an apartment in the city and for four years visits Isabel even though she has lapsed into a coma. One day Ray runs into Leah again—this time at the hospital where she does recreation for the cancer patients. Once again, there seems to be some tact connection between the two people; this time, Leah takes it a bit further by offering to come and cook for Ray once in a while. Although he demurs, saying his place is too small, Leah does not seem discouraged. It is at this point that Ray gets word his wife is “gone.” Ray thinks that they said “gone” as if she had got up and left.” Thus, the title theme of “leaving” is emphasized again. Ray feels, the “emptiness in place of her was astounding.” “She had existed and now she did not. Not at all, as if not ever.” As he makes arrangements for what the hospital staff calls the “remains,” he thinks “what an excellent word—‘remains’. Like something left to dry out in sooty layers in a cupboard.” What Ray now feels is “a lack, something like a lack of air, or proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.”

The story ends with Ray thinking of the girl he had been talking to, about how she had to be used to the loss of her children after her divorce. “An expert at losing she might be called—himself an novice by comparison. And now he could not remember her name. Had lost her name, though he’d known it well. Losing, lost. A joke on him, if you wanted one.” Then as he goes up his steps, he remembers her name, Leah. “A relief out of all proportion, to remember her.”

Rather than ponder, “What does this story mean?” I would consider, “What does this story make me feel and think about the mystery of what it means to be human?”

Knowing that stories most often place the most weight on their conclusions, I put myself in Ray’s place at the end and feel the emptiness of something that “was” and now is no more. It does not seem to make any sense; it is why people often feel disbelief at the death of someone they know, thinking, “How can that be? I just saw her yesterday.” I remember a couple of years ago when my dog died, I had been sitting with her, my hand on her chest, and suddenly felt the absence of the heart beat, and instantly she was transformed into “remains.” It is what Hamlet felt when he lifts the skull of Yorick and marvels at the absence of one he once knew as a fellow of infinite jest. I felt my mother’s loss before she died, for she had been on “life support,” (helluva of phrase, no?”) for several days, and I had already begun to look at her as “remains,” going into her hospital room and looking at the numbers on the machines rather than at what was once her. The “loss” or “absence” of her was, as Munro says, “astonishing.”

Leah’s “loss” is more distant from me, for I have not accompanied her throughout the story as I have Ray. However, I do recall my own divorce and the terrifying fear I felt when my ex-wife made threatening suggestions that she was going to move far away from me and take my two children with her. It was unthinkable that what once was “there” might no longer be “there.” It made me engage in a bitter court battle to make sure that I could be part of my children’s’ lives.

Of course, at the end of the story, it only “makes sense” that Ray and Leah will “get together.” And indeed, the fact that Ray suddenly, after a momentary loss of her name, recalls “Leah” and feels a “sense of relief out of all proportion, to remember her” suggests that these two people may now after their sense of “loss” may “find” each other.

But what does this conclusion have to do with all that has gone before? What basic mysteries about the human condition has Munro developed throughout the story to prepare for this crushing sense of loss that does not involve just one man and woman in the story, but possibly all readers of the story?

I see the opening description of the theatre and its owner Morgan Holly as a kind of “introit” to a story about the mystery of our relationship to the world around us--how we adopt or “try out” the roles that define our place in the world. Ray returns from the war with a vague idea that he had to do something “meaningful with the life that had so inexplicably been left to him.” But how do we know what is “meaningful”? How many of us live lives that we think have meaning? Ray falls in love with his literature teacher. Why? What makes one “fall in love?” It is important that Isabel is a literature teacher, for the story has something to do with people making decisions based on their experience with depictions or impressions of life. (How else do we make decisions?) And does one’s decisions have implications or consequences? If so, what in the larger “story’ of the world would necessitate such consequences? When Isabel becomes ill, she jokes that God is punishing her for her affair with Ray, saying God was wasting his time when she didn’t even believe in him. She later teases Ray that his descriptions of the world in the movies gave Leah the idea of running away with the preacher’s son.

What kind of “fictions” lead us to behave in the way that we do--the fictions of literature, movies, religion, the stories we make up about those who live secret lives around us? And how do we know that what we do is “right” or “wrong”—the “best” thing for us or the “worst”? Who is the hell is writing the script that governs our lives?

One of the curious things about short story writers is that those who write short stories think like writers of fiction. And writers of fiction do not think like people who do not write fiction, especially short fiction. Short story writers think about reality in terms of language. Short story writers explore the possibility that human experiences are mysteriously meaningful. Does this mean that short story writers inevitably give us a view of reality that is more governed by “fictions” than the kind of reality that nonwriters (or nonreaders) understand or experience?

Alice Munro is, in my opinion, a great short-story writer, and thus a quintessential writer of fiction. In “Leaving Maverley,” she does not just have an “entertaining” story to tell, like Margaret Atwood does in “Stone Mattress,” but rather has some deeply human mystery to explore about what makes humans act and think as they do.

After I finished writing the above comments, I followed up on readersquest comment that she has just posted an essay on her own blog about “Leaving Maverley.” She says that although she likes the Atwood story, ” I have yet to read a short story by Alice Munro that I’ve found enjoyable. My irritation with her stories seems all out of proportion. And I’ve never been able to put my finger on the precise reason for that irritation. It’s very frustrating to read worshipful paeans to Alice Munro’s stories with the feeling that I just can’t participate in the adulation – that maybe I’m just not quite smart enough to “get” what Munro is up to.”

Well if readersquest has never found a Munro story enjoyable, it is certainly not because she is “not smart enough.” I have enjoyed her own exploration of “Leaving Maverley” and recommend it to you heartedly. Although she and I agree on many aspects of the story, we do not come to the same conclusions. I wish I had had more students like readersquest when I was teaching. Click on readersquest in her comment on Part I of this posting and read what she has to say; perhaps we can revisit the different ways she and I read the story in a subsequent blog. In spite of her concluding remark in her comment, I make no claim that what I have said above is the “real” answer to “Leaving Maverley.” There is no “real” answer--just caring, committed readers trying their best to appreciate and understand what caring, committed writers create.

I intended to talk about Munro’s new story “To Reach Japan,” which appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Narrative, but have decided to hold that over until next week when I will discuss the story, as well as the issue of Narrative in which it appears.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Popular Plotted vs. Literary Thematic Stories: Margaret Atwood vs. Alice Munro—Part I

One of the most troublesome problems I face in trying to come up with meaningful suggestions about reading short stories is the question of whether a story can be effectively read only once or whether it must be read more than once.

It is not as simple as it first appears, for the question seems to depend on the following issue:

Lets say, you pick up a copy of The New Yorker or Harpers from the bedside table at night and read a story. If the story seems immediately clear and “accessible” (to use an irritating word), it may be because it is a simple plot-based story. However, if you are puzzled or dissatisfied after only one reading, it may be because the story is structured according to themes that do not become connected until, having read the entire story, you begin again reading for meaning rather than for “what happens next.”

These issues raise the perennial problem of “accessible” vs. “literary,” suggesting the related problem of “dumbing down” vs. “elitism.” When the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced back in October, 2011, the chair of the judging panel, Stella Rimington, raised a little hell when she noted that the panel was looking for “enjoyable books” and said the judges thought the shortlist were all “readable books.”

(A side note here: I have just finished reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker and will post a blog on it’s “accessibility” next week.)

Among the various reactions Remington’s judgment aroused, the one that seemed to attract the most attention was the response by Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian, who reminded readers that an “entertaining read” was not necessarily “literature,” for which she said there is a simple test: “Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and feel?”

Winterson argues that the language of fiction is “not simply a means of telling a story; it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power—forget it.” However, the problem, said Winterson, is that powerful language can be daunting; for example,” reading Joyce is hard work and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a very slow read.”

Winterson insists that the controversy is not about “dumbing down,” but rather a misunderstanding about the purpose of literature. “We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologise for the arts in a way that we never do for science.”

The old “accessibility” issue was raised again in November, 2011 by poet John Ashbery in his acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Noting that he was delighted to receive the award since to many people, “what I write makes no sense.” Ashbery mused, to knowing laughter from the audience, that many think his poetry apparently lacks “accessibility,” which he suggested seems to be a “relatively recent requirement” for literature. Ashbery said that when he first discovered modern poetry many years ago he was delighted by its “difficulty.” Noting that when as a student he was assigned Henry James’s Wings of a Dove, he exclaimed to himself, “Well, this is really difficult.” Ashbury laments that nowadays difficulty is “out” and accessibility is “in.” He further argues that reading literature is justifiably difficult because “when we read we are temporarily giving ourselves to something that may change us.”

I want to talk about this issue, focusing on two stories that appeared in the last few months in The New Yorker: Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” in the Nov. 28, 2011 issue, and Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” in the Dec. 19/26 issue.

I read Munro’s story when it first appeared in my online version of The New Yorker and then read it again when the hard copy of the magazine arrived. Googling around the blog world for others who read Alice Munro, I noted that most of those readers summarize the plot of the story and conclude that it does not add up to anything significant.

And I agree, on a first reading of the story, it seems relatively straightforward and inconsequential, not really very “story like.” However, that judgment may be based on a single reading of the story for plot and character, rather than a second or third readings for thematic complexity.

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe’s insisted that a short story differs from the novel by being organized spatially rather than temporally, the short story has often been misread by readers who read it for plot and character the way they read a novel rather than for language and theme, the way a short story primarily communicates.

A single reading of “Leaving Maverley” for plot and character reveals little of note. Basically, it is about a policeman in a small Ontario town whose wife Isabel has a disabling heart problem. The policeman becomes acquainted with a young woman who later runs off with the town minister’s son, with whom she has two children. When the young woman has an affair with the new minister in town, she loses her children in a divorce. The policeman’s wife falls into a coma that lasts four years. At the end of the story, he happens to run into the young woman again in the hospital just before his wife dies. That’s “what happens” in the story. It does not seem like a story, and it does not seem to mean anything.

As usual in a Munro work, the story covers a long period of time and focuses on several characters—the kind of time span ad character configuration that makes many reviewers call her stories “novelistic.” However, if we read “Leaving Maverley” as a short story rather than as a novel—that is, if we read it more than once—as a language-based thematic structure rather than for plot and character configuration—we may find that it is more complex than we first assume.

Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” is about a woman named Verna in her sixties who, while on an Arctic cruise, recognizes someone on board as the seventeen-year-old boy who got her pregnant when she was fourteen and then dumped her. The back-story is that Verna has become so embittered against men that she has become something of a “merry widow,” who has gone through four husbands, usually older than herself and well-to-do. Although each died of “natural causes,” she assisted by encouraging bad eating habits, helping them overdose, taking advantage of Viagra’s danger to those with heart problems, etc. She seems never to have been in love and does not like sex, although she knows how to use it. The man, named Bob, who does not recognize her, tries to seduce her, while she plots to kill him—which she does, with a fossil stone she finds on a trip to shore, leaving his body there for the ravens. She conceals the fact that Bob is missing by frequently going into his cabin and messing up his towels and bed. When the cruise is over and Bob does not show up to pay his bill, it is assumed he fell overboard on the final night. Verna is safe and at peace.

I think you will agree that, based on plot summary, Atwood’s story seems more like a “story” than Munro’s, which seems more like the synopsis of a novel. And that’s because, of course, that “Stone Mattress” is a plot; it is even based on a “plot”—Verna’s plot to seek revenge on the man who “done her wrong.” What is the story about? Well, just that—its plot: revenge, poetic justice, selfish predator males, clever plotting females, etc.

And, of course, the primary clever plotting female here is Margaret Atwood. I have to admit I was hooked from the first sentence: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” The language of the story is simple and transparent—the sentences serving the purpose of advancing the plot and making us empathize with Verna so that we feel a sense of satisfaction at the end, closing the magazine with a smile of appreciation for the cleverness of Verna’s plot and, of course, Atwood’s.

Although this is a popular plot story, not a literary thematic story, Atwood cannot resist a little social commentary and a little playing around with metaphor. In the fifties (we know it is the fifties because Atwood helpfully tells us that at the dance Bob Takes Verna to they dance to “Rock Around the Clock,” “Hearts Made of Stone,” and “The Great Pretender”—all titles that Atwood must have been pleased to come up with since they all echo Bob and the title of the story), when a girl got pregnant illegitimately, as Atwood reminds us, no “decent man” would ever want to marry her. Also in the fifties, as Atwood notes, there was no name for what happened to Verna—no “date rape” since “rape was what occurred when some maniac jumped on you out of a bush.” So, for the sake of the story and its social significance, we are to believe that Bob has turned Verna into a murderer and deserves whatever he gets.

Atwood gets in the “literary stuff” in a couple of ways: Her third husband was a “serial quotation freak” who especially likes to quote from the Romantic and Victorian poets, which allows Atwood to drop in relevant quotations now and again, ending the story by recalling her husband, after his Viagra sessions, annoyingly quoting “Calm of mind all passion spent.” Verna muses, “Those Victorians always couple sex with death” and wonders if the line is from Keats or Tennyson. It little matters that it is neither, but rather from Milton’s Sampson Agonistes, for what Atwood wants to suggest is that Verna’s act of revenge leaves her with “passion spent,” much as the sex act might.

The other little “literary” device Atwood playfully uses here is the ironic significance of Verna’s name and the title of the story. For each of her husbands she has provided a learned explanation for her name—from the Latin word for spring, with its promise of phallic renewal; from the 18th century Scottish poet, James Thompson’s line about vernal breezes, and from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” “a highly sexual ballet that ended with torture and human sacrifice.”

The title of the story comes from the word “stromatolite,” the world’s earliest fossil, which comes from the Greek word “stroma,” meaning mattress, coupled with the root word for “stone.” This is the kind of fossil that Verna finds on shore and uses to beat Bob’s brains out. And yes, there is, of course, a clever reference here to that old fossil Bob, to the memory of "bad boy Bob" preserved or fossilized in the mind of Verna, to the poetic justice of leaving Bob’s body on a “stone bed” (since Bob’s crime has turned Verna and her bed to stone) in the Arctic to become still another fossil once the ravens have picked him clean.

All very clever, all very easy, all a lot of fun, but meaning what? Nothing, of course, except the cheap thrill of identifying with Verna’s clever search for revenge. The little bit of social commentary and the little bit of literary allusion and metaphor are perhaps meant to make us think we are reading something with social substance and artistic importance, rather than a bit of pop fluff. I read the story twice, but discovered nothing that was not obvious from the first reading. I don’t plan to read it again, although I admit the first reading whiled away the time one night before sleep.

Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” is another story, as it were. I will discuss it next week, along with her recent story in the winter issue of Narrative, entitled “To Reach Japan.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Responses to Recent Comments and an Explanation of Recent Edits

Before getting started on a new year of essays for this blog, I ask your indulgence while I tidy up some loose ends left hanging from the old year.

1. Editing of a Few Past Blogs: I have had to make some deletions from previous blogs on some stories by Alice Munro. In my introductory essay for the collection of essays on Munro I have recently edited for EBSCO publishers, I made use of a few paragraphs from my blog entries on “Corrie,” “Gravel,” “Axis,” and “Pride.” Because my work for EBSCO is termed “proprietary content” and EBSCO retains “exclusive perpetual rights to publish that content in print and electronic form,” there seems to be some sort of conflict with my using some of my blog material in the introductory essay. To avoid any problems, I have therefore deleted paragraphs from blog entries that I used in my essay. I apologize to my blog readers for this. Because editing these entries necessitated reposting them to my blog, I temporarily turned off the program that automatically sends new postings to readers by email to avoid cluttering up their mailboxes.

I also deleted the entire entry I posted last year on Alice Munro’s “Passion”—a paper that I presented to the International Short Story Conference in Toronto in 2010—because an expanded version of that essay will appear soon in a special issue of the literary journal Narrative, published by Ohio State University. Although Narrative has not asked me to make this deletion, I wanted to avoid any conflict.

I have researched legal advice on the copyright status of the essays I have published on by blog and determined that they are protected by US copyright law. I own the essays and plan to make use of some of them in future publications. If I wish to make future use of work I have done for EBSCO or for Narrative, I will seek their permission.

2. Responses to Recent Comments: I check my “Comments” file regularly and have decided to respond to some of the most recent ones here rather than in the “Comment” box because they raise issues that I think deserve more than a brief remark.

Thanks to Stephen, Don, and Dex for their comments on my end-of-the-year blog on “Best” lists, especially my reaction to John Stanzinski's piece in P&W. I agree with Stephen that short stories are not memorable for their creation of characters, but I am not sure I agree that that they are memorable for their plot synopses or (unless they are relatively simple “what if” stories) for a “concept.” When they are memorable for a metaphor, it seems to me to be because the metaphor reveals some complex reality that cannot be satisfactorily revealed any other way. I hope to examine this character vs. metaphor issue in more detail in a later blog.

And of course, I agree with Don that when folks come up with metaphors comparing short stories and novels, they inevitably base the comparison on size, with “big” always winning over “small.” I have previously discussed the difference between the kind of “complexity” in the short story and the novel, but it is a crucial issue that needs more exploration, and I will come back to it again and again.

And thanks to my friend Dex, who suggests that it might be a good thing if MFA programs stop using the short story as a convenient teaching tool. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree that when beginning writers who think “novelistically” are forced to write short stories the result is often less than illuminating, but on the other hand I can’t help feeling that when those beginners are taught to think in large structural terms they tend to become sloppy on the sentence level.

“Barebullmoose” was kind enough to respond to my blog on Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”; thank you. As far as I know, when “Train Dreams” was released as a single volume, it was not expanded from the version that appeared in Best American Short Stories; I think rather that the publisher simply used large type and lots of space. “Barebullmoose” notes that a “Pet Peeve” is when he or she reads a story and later finds out that it is a chapter in a novel, concluding, “I also maintain that if a chapter of a novel can stand alone as a viable short story, then how good can that novel possibly be?” I have discussed this “stand-alone story” vs. chapter in a novel issue before, but once again, it is an important issue that I need to explore further. I would phrase “Barebullmoose’s” question differently: “If a story is a chapter in a novel, how good can the story be?”

In a response to my blog on E. T.A. Hoffmann’s “New Year’s Eve Adventure,” “readersquest” asks me if I know the origins of the “body-soul” dichotomy in Hoffmann. If there is a primal origin of the dichotomy, I would suggest it might be what Mircea Eliade describes as the primitive human distinction between the “sacred and the profane”—in which the profane is the world of everyday practical experience, while the sacred is the world of that human sense of there being some reality other than that on which we stub our toe. It has always been my opinion that the short story is more apt to deal with the “sacred,” whereas the novel is more apt to focus on the “profane.”

In a “Comment” on my Best American Short Stories: 2011 blog, “anonymous” asks me if I have read Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child. Yes, I have, but I am afraid I did not like them as much as “anonymous does.” Here is my conclusion to my review of that book: “Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child is a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based stories with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find these stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again. But perhaps that’s less the difference between novels and short stories than it is the difference between popular and literary fiction.” This issue of “popular” vs. “literary” fiction is one to which I will return in a blog later this month.

In a Comment on my blog on Alice Munro’s recent “Dear Life,” “Anonymous asks whether the piece is “fiction or nonfiction.” Well, if the question is, did the event Munro describes happen or not happen? Then I reckon it did happen. However, I suspect anonymous’ question is more complex than that. I don’t think the issue is whether Munro “made up” some of the details in the piece. The real question may be: What transforms an event into a story? And the answer is not simply dependent on “what really happened?” Once again, this is an issue that I hope to return to later.

Thanks to Aaron Riccio for his “Comment” on my blog on Entertainment vs. Literary stories back in October, especially my discussion of David Means’ story “El Morro.” Aaron, who did not care for the Means story, concludes, “What it boils down to, for me, is having something to grab onto, and authors like Means seem to go to an overly literary place, to the extent such that they obfuscate rather than reveal.” However, Aaron also notes that this may be his initial gut reaction to the story and that he will perhaps return to writers like Means later, noting that he wants “to understand how I could so totally hate their earlier work, but if I'm not making a connection, I'm simply not making a connection.” This gets to the problem of whether some stories need to be read more than once. I will come back to this issue in a blog later this month.

Thanks to “trodbarne” for a comment on my emphasis on “spirituality” in the short story. “trodbarne” says, “I feel there is an acute confusion around spiritual things these days--which I guess places them appropriately into the hands of story writers.” I agree and will come back to the issue of spirituality in the form again. And in response to “trodbarne’s” suggestion that I might think of some title for my book like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: Although I occasionally reread my tattered little paperback of Strunk and White, I do not plan to emphasize the traditional elements of plot, voice, point of view, etc. Finally, I appreciate “trodbarne’s” request that I focus on contemporary writers rather than the “classics,” for indeed although I will talk about some of the masterpieces of the genre in the book and what makes them great, I do plan to focus primarily on recent writers.

Thanks to all the others who wrote comments congratulating me on the third anniversary of my blog and encouraging me on the new book. Thanks especially to Sandra Rouse, Alisa Cox, Loree Westron, Ann Graham, Joe Melia, and my lovely daughter-in-law Ean May for suggestions about the title of the book.

Well, now it is time to get down to work. I hope never to stop learning about the power of “story,” and I trust I will never tire of sharing what I learn with others. Thanks so much for your support. May 2012 be a most fulfilling year for you!